Thousands gather to support Indian anti-graft fast

The fight will go on till we get a strong Lokpal (bill): Hazare

Afp August 20, 2011

NEW DEHLI: The anti-corruption hunger strike by Indian activist Anna Hazare drew thousands of supporters to central New Delhi on Saturday as his populist campaign sought to face down the government.

The 74-year-old spoke briefly to crowds from a high podium before he reclined on cushions to be feted with speeches, chanting and live music during the second day of his public fast.

"The fight will go on till we get a strong Lokpal (bill)," Hazare said, referring to his demand that anti-corruption legislation being considered by parliament is strengthened.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government has been left floundering by a national swell of support for Hazare's campaign, with many Indians saying years of anger at corrupt officials had reached boiling point.

Singh on Saturday struck a conciliatory note after previously dismissing Hazare's tactics as undemocratic.

"We are open to discussion, dialogue, we would like a broad national consensus to emerge," the premier told reporters. "There is a lot of scope for give and take."

Public support for Hazare – particularly among the middle classes – soared when he was briefly arrested earlier this week before he was due to start his public fast.

"I think the business world is turning against the official culture," said Somnath Mitra, an IBM managing consultant who attended the protest with company colleagues on Saturday.

Mitra, 39, recalled being forced to pay Rs33,000 in cash, for which he received no receipts, when registering two private properties last year.

"It was effectively a bribe to get my work done," he said.

Hazare now has permission to hold his fast at Ramlila, a muddy open-air venue in Delhi, for 15 days, and he has said he has already lost three kilograms (seven pounds) after refusing food since his arrest on Tuesday.

Scenes of frenzied celebration erupted as Hazare travelled to the venue on Friday. But his campaign organisers face a challenge in sustaining momentum due to the long holiday weekend and muggy monsoon weather.

Several thousand people ranging from students to farm workers massed to witness Hazare's fast on Saturday, though numbers were lower than some observers predicted after a huge pro-Hazare rally in Delhi during the week.

"The funds in government treasuries are ours," Hazare told the cheering crowds. "The treasuries are not threatened by thieves but by those who guard it."

Prime Minister Singh, who was previously seen as above India's corrupt officialdom, has been damaged by the protest movement, appearing out of touch on an issue of deep public concern.

Singh told parliament on Wednesday that Hazare's fast was a "totally misconceived" attempt to blackmail lawmakers into re-drafting legislation.

In an apparent mis-step, the government allowed Hazare to be arrested briefly on Tuesday to prevent him from beginning his hunger strike.

Hazare then refused to leave jail unless the ban on his public fast was lifted, and he emerged triumphant on Friday for a procession on an open-top truck through the capital to continue his hunger strike at Ramlila.

Doctors have been monitoring his health regularly, but have not yet raised any concerns.

India's government has struggled to have its voice heard amid the clamour surrounding Hazare's anti-graft drive, in part because its credentials have been damaged by multi-billion-dollar scandals involving senior officials.

Hazare's hero is Mahatma Gandhi – a portrait of India's independence icon fills the backdrop of the stage where his fast is being held – and he has threatened a Gandhi-style campaign of civil disobedience unless the government relents.

"I came straight from a night shift," said Diksha Rana, 23, a duty manager at the Max hospital in Delhi who attended Saturday's rally.

"This protest is about a problem which has been building up for years and Anna Hazare has unleashed all our frustration.

"This is a serious movement which we must push forward."